Iraq: When Killing Becomes Personal [Photo Essay]

Freelance photojournalist Ashley Gilbertson has been covering the war on Iraq for major media outlets, including The New York Times since 2003.

He was awarded the Robert Capa award and the National Press Photographer's Association award. His first book, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, published by University of Chicago press is the most comprehensive photographic coverage of the war to date. AlterNet and multimedia co-sponsor BAGnewsNotes are pleased to present a multimedia slideshow and an interview with Gilbertson.

Nina Berman: You arrived in Iraq, or actually the northern area of Kurdistan, at the outset of the war. What were your initial feelings as it became clear that the U.S. was going to invade?

Ashley Gilbertson: I'd been to Kurdistan in 2002, to study what type of society the Kurds had built for themselves after having all been refugees at some point in their lives. Listening to their stories -- most recently, betrayal in 1991, and Saddam's chemical attacks -- I was compelled to go back to see how they were treated during the 2003 invasion. I wanted to ensure the Americans and the Iraqis were held accountable for their actions, should it go badly, again. I didn't care what reasons the Americans gave for invading Iraq, all I knew was anything would be better than Saddam. The man was a monster. In retrospect, I think that pro-war stance is visible in my photographs from that time.

Berman: How did your feelings change over time?

Gilbertson: My stance changed dramatically, but not just in regard to the Iraq conflict. In the beginning I felt that war could be justified, ends justifying the means and all that, but after seeing the heart of war, how awful it really is firsthand, I decided war as a whole is the most awful thing anybody could wish for.

Berman: How many months total were you in Iraq and over what time period?

Gilbertson: I worked there for 18 months over a five-year period. Berman: Can you explain the title of the book Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

Gilbertson: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is an acronym for What The Fuck. The soldiers say it over the radio a lot, and for years I had no idea what they were talking about. I thought it was just some crazy military speak I didn't need to know about. When I discovered its meaning and thought back to the times I'd heard it used, I immediately decided it was the perfect title for my book.

Berman: Many of the people you photographed in the book were killed -- sometimes the same day you took their picture, as with Specialist Ian Spakosky, aka Spanky; other times, shortly after. Did that possible reality -- alive now, dead a minute later -- become part of your normal frame of mind, and did it affect how you photographed?

Gilbertson: Up until Spanky was killed, death was something abstract. It was always around, I mean, I can't tell you how many bodies I saw, but it was something I could distance myself from. When Spanky died, I became very emotional about it. It became personal. I knew the guy. I knew he'd called his wife the night before, expecting she'd ask for a divorce, and learned that she'd gotten a tattoo of his name over her heart.

That had a profound effect on my work, and continues to today. I'm trying to take pictures that illustrate what I've learned, that we need to celebrate and cherish every moment of our lives; that no matter your religion or politics, death is something that we all share and fear. I shot a story in Vienna that looked at the first and last moments of life. More recently, I've started a project about fallen soldiers and marines.

Berman: For me, a truly creepy moment in the book is when you talk about the snipers and how killing becomes very personal, obsessively so, at a distance. Can you talk about this and your sniper?

Gilbertson: When I was specifically targeted, and it happened only a few times, I'd generally get pissed off. I mean, I'm not firing at anyone. I'm a photographer. We come from a culture where the press is rightly regarded as noncombatants. In Iraq, that's not the case. We're seen as spies, mouthpieces of the government, and, therefore, we're fair game. It's bullshit, but in some regards, I can start to comprehend why Iraqis might think this way. For over 20 years under Saddam, all media was state-sponsored, and today, most of the newspapers have allegiances to a particular sect or political party. With that as your understanding of the media, it must be incredibly difficult to understand much of the American press tries to be independent of religion and politics. Still, it doesn't make it any less infuriating when they try to kill you.

Berman: Journalists' access to this war is largely through the embed process, where photographers and writers are assigned to certain military units and get a very close look at the unit. You describe a moment where you have fallen asleep in the back if a Bradley, tank and afterward the Sgt. said to you that napping in a tank makes you an honorary member of the team because "no one but a grunt could sleep in a Bradley." Did you want to be one of the boys, so to speak? And what is the culture of the combat journalist?

Gilbertson: It's incredibly difficult to gain the trust of soldiers. At the outset of an embed, most of them don't trust you, don't even like your presence, so when you are accepted, it's a good feeling. That said, I'll never be one of them. I'm a humanitarian, and the last thing I'd ever want to do is pick up a gun and kill someone. As to the culture of a combat journalist, I don't think it really exists as it used to. There's no bar or central hotel where people can hang out in Baghdad, it's just too dangerous. Reporters mostly stay to themselves and try to make deadlines -- those who keep working in Iraq are an extremely committed and passionate group.

Berman: Describe what if any compromises you had to make as an embed.

Gilbertson: It only happened once, but it was bad, and it still drives me crazy today. I was out in Samarra on the big offensive up there, and I embedded with the New York National Guard. I was hanging out with one platoon a lot, and they'd stumbled across a suspect who had Osama Bin Laden booklets in his home. Their interpreter, Money Mike, an Iraqi national guardsman, beat the hell out of the man, trying to get intel, and I photographed the whole scene. The man wasn't talking, so Mike took out a bayonet and went to stab the guy, but he was stopped by the American Lieutenant, who said, "I hate to say this Mike, but put the knife away ... I mean, I have to be frank: There's a reporter here."

I thought I had the picture and lied to the Lieutenant that I didn't take it. I found out just a few days ago, over beers with him back here in New York, he thought I was lying when I said it. I really thought he'd believed me. That night though, editing photos, I realized that I had unconsciously made the decision not to press the shutter, a way of protecting the platoon. It was the first and last time I let the embed process cloud my objectivity.

Berman: Are there any other pictures you missed that still nag at you?

Gilbertson: While I have some photographs of wounded and dying soldiers in the book, I am furious about Pentagon's directives that have since made it impossible to shoot those scenes. By not allowing the press to cover such awful events, it's created a sanitized and emotionless war. It not only gives the public an inadequate picture of what's really going on there, but it robs the men and women who are being wounded and killed the recognition for the sacrifices they made. The numerous conversations I've with parents of dead men I photographed, I know how painful it is for them to see the pictures of their children on stretchers, but I think in time, as a nation, we will look back at this war and ask why those pictures don't exist.

Berman: In one passage in the book, during the battle of Fallujah, you said you were so tired following the marines, and you didn't know how they kept it up. You just wanted it to stop. And you said you would have done anything to make it stop. How do the troops keep going?

Gilbertson: I'm sure there are lots of reasons -- training, adrenaline, fear, revenge -- but I think, above all, we all realized that if we stopped, we'd certainly be killed.

Berman: At the end of your book, you and the reader are left feeling hopeless, bewildered, and overcome. What do you see is the future for Iraq, and would you go back?

Gilbertson: I used to go to Iraq at the drop of a hat, I mean, I'd plan to spend at least half of each year in the place. I feel as if my luck is running out though, I should have been killed so many times, that now, returning is something I have to think about deeply and honestly. I made a trip earlier this year to assess the troop surge and how it affected Baghdad, and I'll be back next year to look at what happens when 30,000 soldiers pull out of Baghdad. I don't know when I'll stop; perhaps when the last American boot leaves Iraqi soil; perhaps I'll keep going back all my life. I really don't know. Ask me again in 20 years.

Ashley Gilbertson's pictures are on view at GalleryBar in NYC.

This photo series is underwritten, in part, by the popular progressive blog BAGnewsNotes. Authored by psychologist Michael Shaw, BAGnewsNotes is dedicated to the daily visual analysis of political news images. In addition, the site features and promotes original photojournalism. Besides "The BAG," Shaw also writes a blog feature for the Huffington Post called "Reading The Pictures" and an online column for American Photo magazine.

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